London’s five most romantic neighbourhoods

From Hackney Wick to Eel Pie Island, “London For Lovers” reveals the city’s best date spots.

Forget Paris. London is today’s amorous city of choice, according to a new book, London for LoversBeautiful photography accompanies short guides to the city's finest romantic neighbourhoods - from the well-trodden (Notting Hill) to the less expected (Crystal Palace, anyone?).  Here are five worth discovering on Valentine's Day:

Lincoln's Inn Field

The largest public square in London, framed by the Gothic spires of the redbrick Lincoln’s Inn society of lawyers, this park is surprisingly easy to miss whilst power-walking down Holborn high street.

“Picnicking on the Field under the spring blossoms feels like stepping back in time,” write the authors, Sam Hodges and Sophie Vickers. Springtime it may not be, but the Inn has other curiosities to offer. The Hunterian Museum, a “less romantic but more macabre detour” on the park’s southside, is a bizarre collection of medical oddities. Collated by eighteenth century surgeon John Hunter, the museum boasts pickled foetuses and the skeleton of The Irish Giant, a 7 foot 7 inch wonder named Charles Byrne.

Dulwich and Forest Hill

The Dulwich Picture gallery, with its “crimson walls and topsy-turvey crowded galleries”, makes an ideal haunt for art lovers. It was also England’s first public art gallery whose first collection came as the gift from “eccentric” collector Sir Francis Bourgeois. He even bequeathed his own body to the museum.

Also recommended are the London Recumbents, cycle-hire specialists on the corner of Dulwich Park, where couples can hire “adult tricycles” with side-by-side seating, handy for roaming the surrounding greenery.

Wapping

Wapping is an atmospheric neighbourhood on the “brooding foreshore” of the River Thames laying claim to two titles of “the oldest”. The Prospect of Whitby calls itself the oldest Thames-side pub in existence, dating from 1543, while the glorious Wilton’s Music Hall, which has survived demolition scares and a takeover bid by Weatherspoons, has been around since 1725 (when it was an alehouse serving Scandinavian sailors).  This romantic venue is the oldest music hall in the world; comprised of a “pillar strewn” concert room and the Mahogany Bar, an antiquated drinking den where one (or two) can cosy up for a tipple.

Twickenham

Off the back of a Dickens quote, the Eel-Pie Island in Twickenham is flagged as a refuge for eclectic lovers:

“Unto the Eel-Pie Island at Twickenham: there to make merry upon a cold collation, bottled beer, shrub, and shrimp, and to dance in the open air to the music of a locomotive band.” – from Nicholas Nickelby

Separated from the Twickenham embankment by a curved footbridge, the secluded, car-free island is accessible only by boat. The place has a history of passion – the authors make mention of both Henry VIII, said to fill up on eel pies whilst journeying by riverboat from Hampton Court to the homes of various mistresses, and an artist couple who battled eight months with the Richmond council, eventually winning the right to rename their home ‘Love Shack’ (after the B52s' hit).

Hackney Wick

Londoners notoriously prowl for the “next” spot, and many have identified the current heart of chic as Hackney Wick/Fish Island - a cluster of warehouses bound on two sides by Union Canal and the River Lea.

It’s an area in a constant state of flux - there’s a good chance that any pop-up market or gallery mentioned here may be there one day, gone the next.” All the more reason to hurry there with a loved one tonight, to see what you find. 

Members of the English pop group The Tremeloes kiss their brides in Trafalgar Square, 1967 (Photo: Getty Images)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear